PT TOMORROW: AL East—Smith, Pearce among ‘persons of interest’ this spring

Tampa Bay Rays

It has been an interesting offseason for Mallex Smith (OF, TAM). Technically, he spent minutes as a member of the Seattle Mariners before being moved along to the Rays, where, at least initially, it appeared he had been traded into a situation replete with outfielders, one that perhaps signaled that the 24-year-old would spend at least the first part of the season in the minors.

The situation has brightened considerably since then. One of the roadblocks that initially appeared to be in Smith’s way, Nick Franklin (2B, TAM), may now be slated for full-time duty at second base, due to the trade of Logan Forsythe (2B, LA), though late word from Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times is that Brad Miller (1B, TAM) may shift to the position instead, with the team signing or trading for a first baseman to cover that position.

Mikie Mahtook (OF, DET) was also sent packing to the Tigers.

Suddenly, the main thing standing between Smith and substantial playing time are a pair of contact-challenged corner outfielders, Steven Souza (OF, TAM) and Colby Rasmus (OF, TAM) (along with perhaps Franklin, if he remains in the team's OF mix).

Smith, of course, interests us as a potential 40-plus-SB speed source, if he can find the playing time.

The Rays have been very patient with Souza, perhaps unwilling to admit defeat in the three-team, 11-player trade in which Trea Turner (SS, WAS) and Wil Myers (1B, SD) found new homes. Souza has done little to reward that patience, though he did finish 2016 on a high note (.327, 4 HR in 52 September AB). It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Souza could slip into the weak side of a platoon with Rasmus or Smith, each of whom struggle with lefties.

Smith could also simply beat out Rasmus, who will need to show that he is healthy after October hip labrum and core muscle surgery, and that a return to health will allow him to recapture his above-average power skills, which were largely AWOL after a hot first month last season.

No matter how it ultimately shakes out, Smith is on the list of most interesting players to watch this spring.


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Baltimore Orioles

By bringing back Mark Trumbo (DH, BAL) and acquiring Seth Smith (OF, BAL) to play right field against right-handed pitching, the Orioles have positioned themselves to benefit the best of what Trumbo offers—his bat—while minimizing the worst—his glove.

Trumbo may, however, still need to trot out to right field against left-handed pitching, when Smith (career .202 BA vs. LHP) presumably will take a seat on the bench.

That would make available a pocket of at-bats at DH available for a right-handed hitter. At least as the Baltimore roster stands now, the leading candidate to claim those AB is Trey Mancini (1B, BAL), who made a bit of a splash with 3 HR in just 14 AB in September.

Mancini, the Orioles’ No. 5 prospect according to BaseballHQ.com, has hit at least 20 HR in the minors in each of the last two seasons and, as noted by minor-league analyst Jeremy Deloney, last year significantly increased his walk rate.

Now 25, Mancini is reaching his prime years and may force his way into a situation better than the weak side of a platoon in fairly short order.

One way that could happen, though it would require the O’s to be comfortable with Trumbo or Chris Davis (1B, BAL) in right field, is if the team soured on Hyun-Soo Kim (OF, BAL), who is slated to be on the strong side of a platoon with Joey Rickard (OF, BAL) in left field.

As noted in the Baseball Forecaster, Kim’s xBA suggest that his .302 BA in 2016 was a fluke, and Kim offers next-to-nothing in the power department. Smith could slide across to left field if the Orioles wanted to open up AB for Mancini.

If, however, Baltimore wants Mancini to be an everyday player in Triple-A, at least to start the season, fellow RHB Christian Walker (OF, BAL) brings the added bonus of having made a successful transition to the corner outfield in the minors last year. At 26, he is a year older than Mancini, though his 2016 season at AAA-Norfolk was a bit lackluster (.264/.321/.437).

 

Boston Red Sox

With the addition of Chris Sale (LHP, BOS), the Red Sox have three Cy-Young-caliber pitchers at the front of their rotation. However, they have some questions to answer on the back end.

All three of the candidates for the final two rotation slots have injury questions, yet all three at least claim the will be good to go once spring training begins. Steven Wright (RHP, BOS) has seen the rehabilitation of his pitching shoulder, which he injured pinch running, drag deep into the winter.

Eduardo Rodriguez (LHP, BOS) hurt his right knee while pitching in Venezuela Dec. 27 but, according to team president Dave Dombrowski, is “walking without pain.”

Meanwhile Drew Pomeranz (LHP, BOS) had a stem-cell injection on his injured elbow in October but managed to dodge surgery.

Given Pomeranz has perhaps the most serious injury concern—plus his ERA as a reliever (2.10) is almost two runs lower than as a starter (4.07)—one natural solution might be to have Pomeranz pitch out of the bullpen until a need in the rotation arises.

Rodriguez, meanwhile, has options remaining and could bide his time in the minors until needed.

It is perhaps worth noting, however, the gap between Wright’s ERA and xERA (3.33/4.42). If Pomeranz or Rodriguez does not begin the season in the rotation, either could be a strong buy-low candidate.

 

New York Yankees

Barring a late addition, it appears the Yankees will go into 2017 with Aaron Judge (OF, NYY) as the leading contender to start the season as the team’s right fielder.

While there is little question about the 6-foot, 7-inch Judge’s power, he struck out in half of his 84 major-league AB last season. If those strikeouts persist in spring training, it could open the door for another player to take over while Judge continues to hone his contact skills in Triple-A.

One possible beneficiary is Aaron Hicks (OF, NYY), who slashed .276/.339/.431 with 5 HR in 127 plate appearances from August 2 on after a dreadful first four months of the season.

There also may well be an Opening Day roster spot for one of Rob Refsnyder (1B, NYY) and Tyler Austin (1B, NYY), who will also be part of the team’s competition at first base. Of the two, the power Austin displayed last year in Triple-A (1.051 OPS in 201 AB) and in the majors (5 HR in 83 AB) holds the most intrigue, though Refsnyder has shown some ability to get on base, and his ability to play multiple infield positions may give him a leg up on earning a roster spot.

It is a situation to monitor to see, first and foremost, if Judge can lock down the opportunity he has been given.

 

Toronto Blue Jays

Another interesting player to watch this spring will be Steve Pearce (1B, TOR), who had surgery Sept. 21 to clean up damaged flexor tendons in his right elbow and was given a four- to six-month timetable to recover.

Pearce has said that he feels like he’s ahead of schedule and has been cajoling the team’s medical personnel to accelerate his rehabilitation, something the team has at least thus far resisted, perhaps wisely. However, if things remain on the same track, Pearce should be ready to start the season with his Blue Jays teammates.

The question will then become: How much playing time will Pearce receive? He is expected to form the weak half of a platoon with Justin Smoak (1B, TOR) at first base at a minimum, but there is at least a fair chance he can wrest a good number of AB against right-handed pitching as well.

For one thing, as noted in the Baseball Forecaster, Smoak’s “eroding contact” makes him no sure bet to hold long-term the job he’s been given.

In addition, a healthy Pearce could vie with another player with contact issues, Melvin Upton (OF, TOR), for playing time in left field.

While Pearce has earned a reputation as a lefty masher, he more than held his own against RHP last season (.275/.357/.437), to the point where it is unlikely that he would take a back seat to Ezequiel Carrera (OF, TOR), despite Carrera’s left-handedness.

So, keep an eye on Pearce. Especially for early drafters, a modest investment may produce significant dividends, given his paths to playing time.


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